After Hannah had dedicated her son to the Lord and had left Samuel with Eli at Shiloh, she and her husband Elkanah returned home to Ramah. Samuel remained in Shiloh to serve the LORD under the tutelage of Eli the priest. Since the days of his dedication, Samuel was being trained as an apprentice of Eli. Three times the biblical writer affirms that Samuel was ministering to the Lord as Eli’s assistant (1 Samuel 2:11, 18; 3:1).
Eli was an old man when Samuel came to serve in the house of the Lord. Eli was ninety-eight years old when he died (1 Samuel 4:15). Because of his old age, Eli had appointed his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to serve as priests. Eli’s sons were wicked men. They corrupted their ministry and despised the Lord by the evil things they did.
When Samuel came to minister to the Lord at Shiloh, he came to learn how to be a priest. Samuel lived with his adopted family. Eli and his sons provided a context for Samuel’s education and apprenticeship. The wicked behavior of Eli’s sons was not the ideal model for ministry. In the midst of corruption and immorality, Samuel made a commitment to live a different life. He decided not to follow the evil practices of Eli’s sons. Samuel decided to take a different path and live a life that honored God.
Hophni and Phinehas were not good examples for the young Samuel, for “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12). The statement that Eli’s sons were “wicked men” is a translation of the Hebrew expression “sons of Belial.” The expression “sons of Belial” is used in the Old Testament to describe evil and wicked people. This expression is “often used to denote those who played roles which were detrimental to the maintenance of social order” (Lewis 1992: 655).
When Hannah came to pray in the temple, Eli was appalled at what he saw. He said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine” (1 Samuel 1:14). In response, Hannah told Eli, “Do not take your servant to be a daughter of Belial” (1 Samuel 1:16). Eli was accusing Hannah of being a wicked woman because he believed that she was drunk in the house of the Lord. However, it was Eli’s sons who were the sons of Belial because of the wicked things they were doing in the temple.
The expression “they had no regard for the LORD” in Hebrew is “they did not know the Lord.” In the Old Testament to know the Lord means to have a personal relationship with God. This statement means that although Hophni and Phinehas were priests and although they were representatives of Yahweh before the people, they did not have a close and personal relationship with God and they did not honor God as they ministered in the temple.
Eli’s sons were corrupted by money (1 Samuel 2:12-14)
One of the wicked things Hophni and Phinehas were accused of doing was the violation of the sacrificial procedure commanded by Moses in Leviticus. According to Levitical law (Leviticus 7:29-34), when the people of Israel came to sacrifice in the tabernacle, they were required to give to the priest the fat of the sacrifice along with the breast and shoulder. Hophni and Phinehas, however, were not happy with the portion assigned to them. They demanded from the people more of the meat that was assigned to them. In addition, they would demand their share before the meat consecrated to the Lord had been completely burned upon the altar (1 Samuel 2:15).
Meat was a commodity in an agricultural society and the portion of meat the priests received from the people was the priest’s compensation for their service in the temple. Hophni and Phinehas were greedy because they were not satisfied with their compensation; they wanted more.
Eli’s sons were corrupted by power (1 Samuel 2:15-16)
The High Priest was a powerful man. He had much influence in the community and was highly regarded. Hophni and Phinehas also had much power because they became the acting priests because of Eli’s old age. They abused the power they had to rob the people when they came to sacrifice in the temple.
Hophni and Phinehas sent their servants to get their potion from the people sacrificing in the temple, but even before the people burned the fat for the sacrifice, their servants would come and tell the people making the sacrifice to give the meat to the priests to roast. Hophni and Phinehas did not want boiled meat; they wanted it raw. Then, if any person would refuse to give raw meat to the priests’ servants, the servant would threaten that person by saying that they would use force to get what they wanted.
Under the orders of Eli’s sons, their servants would take by force the meat the worshipers were sacrificing to God. This misuse of power for personal gains reveals Eli’s sons’ attitude toward God and their ministry in the temple. Their despicable behavior received the condemnation of the community: “This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17).
Eli’s sons were corrupted by sex (1 Samuel 2:22)
Hophni and Phinehas are also condemned for the immoral behavior with the women who served at the tabernacle, “they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22). Although the duties of these women are not mentioned, the Hebrew word used to describe what they did in the tabernacle is the same word used to describe Levitical service (Numbers 4:23). It is possible that these women were associated with the music ministry in the tabernacle.
The people in the community were aware of Hophni’s and Phinehas’s behavior. Eventually, his children’s behavior was made known to Eli: “Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22). Eli rebuked his sons but his sons “did not listen to their father’s rebuke” (1 Samuel 2:25).
Samuel grew up in the house of the Lord but the culture in which he lived did not set a good model for ministry. Although Samuel ministered to the Lord under the tutelage of Eli, Eli was an old man and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were the active priests. Samuel lived with Eli and his sons, his adopted family. Although he was young, Samuel had to make a decision whether to follow the example of the two sons of Eli. In his heart, Samuel made a decision, he chose to live upstream, he was not going to follow their example.
Counter-culture living is a decision that is hard to make. Samuel could have chosen to follow the sinful lifestyle of Hophni and Phinehas and be welcomed by them. Samuel, however, chose to follow the Lord and in so doing, he was honored by God, “Those who honor me I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30).
The writer of 1 Samuel used four occasions to compare the evil behavior of the two brothers with Samuel’s decision to follow the Lord. These four texts show the contrast between the way Eli’s sons were living and the way Samuel chose to live his life before God.
A Life of Submission
The first way the narrator compares Samuel’s life with the life Eli’s sons were living was by comparing their submission to God.
Eli’s sons: “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12).
Samuel: “the boy ministered before the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:11).
Eli’s sons had no regard for the Lord and for the ministry assigned to them. Samuel ministered before the Lord, standing in awe of God. Samuel lived in submission to God while Eli’s sons lived in rebellion against God. They did not have a sense of reverence and of respect for the things of God. They lacked the fear of God, that sense of awe that leads to submission to God.
A Life of Selflessness
The second way the narrator compares Samuel’s life with the life Eli’s sons were living was by the way they treated people.
Eli’s sons: “they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17-18).
Samuel: “Samuel was ministering before the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:18).
Eli’s sons were selfish. They expressed their selfishness by demanding more meat than they were allowed to receive. They treated the offering of the Lord with contempt. They were not satisfied with their compensation for services rendered. They abused their power by threatening those who refused to bow down to their greed. Samuel was different. Samuel chose to serve the Lord. He chose to use his God-given gifts to bless others; he chose not to get but to give.
Samuel’s selflessness came out of his personal relationship with God which was manifested in his concern for people and his desire to live a life different from the selfish lives of his adopted brothers. At the end of his ministry, after Israel had chosen a king, Samuel defended his integrity by asking the people, “Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe?” (1 Samuel 12:3). The people agreed that Samuel had lived a life of integrity.
A Life of Satisfaction
The third way the narrator compares Samuel’s life with the life Eli’s sons were living was by comparing the way they lived.
Eli’s Sons: “they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22).
Samuel: “Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:21).
The sons of Eli received a generous portion of the sacrifice offered in the tabernacle, but they wanted more. As the wise men said, “whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). They abused their power to get what they wanted. They abused their power to seduce the women who were serving the Lord.
While Eli’s sons wanted more earthly goods and wanted to satisfy their sexual desire, Samuel chose to serve the Lord in the tabernacle. Shiloh was the place where people came to find the presence of the Lord. God manifested his presence there. Samuel served God so that he could minister to the people who came to worship in the temple.
A Life of Honor
The fourth way the narrator compares Samuel’s life with the life Eli’s sons were living was by the way they related to God.
Because of the behavior of Hophni and Phinehas, God sent a prophet to announce God’s judgment upon the house of Eli: “a man of God came to Eli and said to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: . . . Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel? . . . I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind’” (1 Samuel 2:27, 29, 35).
Eli and his sons were rejected as priests in Israel because they did not honor God, “those who despise me will be disgraced” (1 Samuel 2:30). Samuel chose to live a life of commitment to God; he chose to honor God with his life and his ministry, “those who honor me I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30).
The story of Eli and his sons is a tragic story. Hophni and Phinehas were the sons of a priest who ministered before the Lord and yet they did not know the Lord and despised him by their wicked actions. As a result of their failure to live a life worthy of the God whom they served, their ministry was rejected, and the house of Eli would lose the right to continue in the priesthood.
Samuel decided to live a life of commitment and dedication to God. Samuel grew up in the temple and there he ministered in the presence of God. In the temple, “Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men” (1 Samuel 2:26). Because of his commitment to live a different life than that of his adopted brothers, God used Samuel to become a great leader in Israel and to make an impact in the lives of many people.
On May 23, 2021, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on 1 Samuel 2:11-35 titled “Samuel: Lessons From a Remarkable Child – Living Upstream.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
Jeff begins his sermon by saying that he has never kayaked before. When kayaking one never goes upstream because it is difficult. Kayaking is going downstream, going with the flow. The same happens in life; it is easy going with the flow. Most people live going downstream; it is natural, but it is not God’s plan.
Jeff emphasizes in his sermon that Samuel chose to live his life upstream; this was the life God intended for him, and he succeeded. Eli’s sons chose to live a downstream life and their decision led to their death. Christians must learn to go against the cultural values of society. Living upstream, living in society with a biblical worldview is difficult and challenging; it requires a lot of hard work, but Christians can live that kind of life, not by their own power, but by God’s power. This power is available through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2).
Jeff ends his sermon by mentioning the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his opposition to Hitler. Bonhoeffer lived a life marked by humility and by his commitment to go against the culture of his day.
The Sermon: “Samuel: Lessons From a Remarkable Child – Living Upstream” by Jeff Griffin.
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Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Lewis, Theodore J. “Belial.” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.